Quantum Leap

Christina Knapp

Christina Knapp is an associate researcher working on topological quantum computing with Microsoft Station Q in Santa Barbara.

She was born and raised in Alaska, attended Williams College in Massachusetts, and earned her PhD in physics from UCSB. She was a postdoc at Caltech, before moving back to Santa Barbara in 2020 to begin at Microsoft. In addition to physics, Christina enjoys running, baking, and spending time with her dog, Cody.

Describe your path from growing up in Anchorage, Alaska to now working at Microsoft’s Quantum’s hub in Santa Barbara, Station Q

I became interested in physics as a high school student in Anchorage, AK, but did not seriously consider pursuing a career in science. At the time, I believed I would be a humanities major in college and expected my career to have a strong writing focus. However, due to the encouragement of my high school physics teacher, I enrolled in physics in my first semester at Williams. I quickly discovered that while I enjoyed my other classes, I was most focused on physics and trying to unravel the seeming contradictions of quantum mechanics with my everyday intuition. I spent two of my summers during college doing research, first in an experiment with an AMO lab, then in quantum information theory for my senior thesis. The latter convinced me to pursue graduate school, and I happily chose to attend UCSB. I did my graduate work with Chetan Nayak in topological quantum computing. Throughout my time at UCSB, I benefited from working closely with researchers at Station Q, attending group meetings and talks at the KITP, and taking advantage of the flexibility of theoretical physics to visit universities across the country and attend conferences around the world. After earning my PhD in 2019, I did a postdoc at Caltech with the condensed matter theory group. I then returned to Santa Barbara last fall to begin as a researcher with Microsoft Station Q.

What drew you to choose UCSB for your graduate studies?

My main motivation for choosing to attend UCSB for graduate school was the concentration of research in my field of interest. There were multiple professors in the department who I was excited to work with, and my conversations with them during visit day were encouraging even though I did not have a background in condensed matter. I also appreciated that the graduate students seemed happy and emphasized the benefits of living in Santa Barbara. I did not fully appreciate until I was in graduate school how important the location, particularly the easy access to nature, would be to my happiness.

You were involved in the Graduate Scholars Program at UCSB. How would you describe your experience?

I was a mentor during my last year of graduate school for GSP. My mentoring family broadened my perspective of beginning at UCSB. Our meetings stayed informal, it was an opportunity for us to discuss how things were going and to talk through any challenges. Many of our conversations reminded me of my own experiences when I was a first year student, but some highlighted differences across departments and made me better appreciate university wide resources. I then used that knowledge while a postdoc to seek out those same resources, which improved my experience and was helpful on the job market. I have every confidence that my mentees are going to have amazing careers- I look forward to hearing about their future successes.

I see that you are an accomplished runner with a win at the 2017 Pier to Peak, the self-titled “hardest half marathon in the world.” How does running connect to your other passion, Physics?

I grew up in a cross country skiing enthused family, and an important part of my college experience was being on the ski team. Running was an avenue for ski training, particularly mountain running since ski races tend to be very hilly. I knew when moving to Santa Barbara that I would have limited skiing opportunities, so I shifted my focus to trail running and chasing the family marathon record. Having goals outside of physics has been important for maintaining my work-life balance, while also being a fun way to connect with peers and mentors. While at UCSB, I helped lead a weekly track workout for grad students and managed to coerce friends into joining me for mountain runs and backcountry adventures. I’ve taken advantage of trail running at summer schools and conferences to connect with other attendees. It is fun to see coworkers and professors out on the trails or at the start line of a race.

Mentorship is critical, especially while in an academic setting like UCSB. How did mentors help you on your journey?

I have benefitted immensely from mentors. My graduate advisor was extremely supportive and always offered honest advice. I also had several unofficial advisors at Station Q who introduced me to different areas of physics and offered much appreciated career guidance. The condensed matter professors in the department were happy to let me join their group meetings, include me in projects, and introduce me to people at conferences. The senior graduate students and postdocs in my group were valuable resources to turn to for physics questions and proofread fellowship and postdoc applications. When I struggled with the department climate, the Women in Physics group- both professors and students- were a valuable resource for me to process my experiences and move forward. I have asked for help and advice many times, from many people, throughout my career. I am honored when I am given the opportunity to pay it forward and mentor someone else.

Why do you give back to UCSB?

Graduate school is hard, sometimes in necessary ways but all too often in unnecessary ways that have an uneven effect. For me, earning my PhD has been extremely rewarding and has directly led to a job that I love. This required hard work on my part, but also investment from many people. I think the best way to thank them is to pay it forward. This is why I give back to UCSB.